Batman: The Killing Joke

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Batman: The Killing Joke

Cover to Batman: The Killing Joke. Art by Brian Bolland.
Publication information
Publisher DC Comics
Format One-shot
Genre , Superhero
Publication date March 1988
Number of issues 1
Main character(s) Batman
The Joker
James Gordon
Barbara Gordon
Creative team
Writer(s) Alan Moore
Artist(s) Brian Bolland
Letterer(s) Richard Starkings
Colorist(s) John Higgins (original)
Brian Bolland (Deluxe Edition)
Creator(s) Alan Moore
Brian Bolland
John Higgins
Editor(s) Dennis O'Neil
Collected editions
Batman: The Killing Joke ISBN 0930289455
DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore ISBN 1401209270
Batman: The Killing Joke - 20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition ISBN 9781401216672

Batman: The Killing Joke is an influential one-shot superhero comic book written by Alan Moore and drawn by Brian Bolland, published by DC Comics in 1988. It has in its original form continuously been held in print since then. It has also been reprinted as part of the DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore-trade paperback

In 2008 it was reprinted in a deluxe hardcover edition.[1] This Deluxe Edition features new coloring by Brian Bolland, meant to illustrate his original intentions for the book, with more somber, realistic, and subdued colors than the intensely-colored original.


[edit] Plot summary

The plot revolves around a largely psychological battle between Batman and his longtime foe the Joker, who has escaped from Arkham Asylum. The Joker intends to drive Gotham City Police Commissioner James Gordon insane to prove that the most upstanding citizen is capable of going mad after having "one bad day". Along the way, the Joker has flashbacks to his early life, gradually explaining his possible origin.

The Joker, before his accident, with his pregnant wife; by Brian Bolland.

The man who will become the Joker is an unnamed laboratory assistant who quits his job at a chemical company to become a stand-up comedian, only to fail miserably. Desperate to support his pregnant wife, Jeannie, he agrees to guide two criminals through the plant to rob the card company next door. During the planning, the police inform him that his wife has died in a household accident involving an electric baby bottle heater. Grief-stricken, the engineer tries to withdraw from the plan, but the criminals strong-arm him into keeping his commitment to them.

At the plant, the criminals make him don a special mask to become the infamous Red Hood. Unknown to the engineer, this disguise is simply the criminals' scheme to implicate any accomplice as the mastermind to divert attention from themselves. Once inside, they almost immediately blunder into security personnel, and a violent shootout and chase ensues. The criminals are gunned down and the engineer finds himself confronted by Batman, who is investigating the disturbance.

The Joker, after emerging from the vat of toxic-waste.

Panicked, the engineer deliberately jumps into the chemical plant's toxic waste catch-basin vat to escape Batman and is swept through a pipe leading to the outside. Once outside, he discovers, to his horror, that the chemicals have permanently bleached his skin chalk white, stained his lips ruby red and dyed his hair bright green. This turn of events, compounding the man's misfortunes of that one day, drives him completely insane and results in the birth of the Joker.

In the present day, the Joker kidnaps Gordon, shoots and paralyzes his daughter Barbara (a.k.a. Batgirl), and imprisons him in a run-down amusement park. His henchmen then strip Gordon naked and cage him in the park's freak show. He chains Gordon to one of the park's rides and cruelly forces him to view giant pictures of his wounded daughter in various states of undress. Once Gordon completes the maddening gauntlet, the Joker ridicules him as an example of "the average man", a naïve weakling doomed to insanity.

Batman arrives to save Gordon, and the Joker retreats into the funhouse. Gordon's sanity is intact despite the ordeal and he insists that Batman capture the Joker "by the book" in order to "show him that our way works." Batman enters the funhouse and faces the Joker's traps while the Joker tries to persuade his old foe that the world is inherently insane and thus not worth fighting for. Eventually, Batman tracks down the Joker and subdues him. Batman then attempts to reach out to him to give up crime and put a stop to their years-long war; otherwise, the two will be eternally locked on a course that will one day result in a fight to the death between them. The Joker declines, however, ruefully saying "It's too late for that...far too late." He then tells Batman a joke that was started earlier in the comic. The joke is funny enough to make the normally stone-faced Batman laugh. They continue to laugh as the police approach. Batman then grabs the Joker and the story ends, leaving it up to the reader to determine the Joker's fate.

[edit] The Joke

The joke told by the Joker is a common one:

See, there were these two guys in a lunatic asylum... and one night, one night they decide they don't like living in an asylum any more. They decide they're going to escape! So, like, they get up onto the roof, and there, just across this narrow gap, they see the rooftops of the town, stretching away in the moon light... stretching away to freedom. Now, the first guy, he jumps right across with no problem. But his friend, his friend daredn't make the leap. Y'see... Y'see, he's afraid of falling. So then, the first guy has an idea... He says "Hey! I have my flashlight with me! I'll shine it across the gap between the buildings. You can walk along the beam and join me!" B-but the second guy just shakes his head. He suh-says... He says "Wh-what do you think I am? Crazy? You'd turn it off when I was half way across!"

[edit] Themes

The exploration of the Joker's origin and the hopelessness that belies his "evil clown" persona is affected toward adding more depth to the character. It should be noted, however, that this background story may not be the authentic telling of the Joker's origin, as the villain himself admits to harboring conflicting memories about his past.

Another theme explores the possibility that Batman is just as insane as the criminals he faces, but manifests insanity in a different way. In an interview, Moore summarized the theme: "Psychologically Batman and the Joker are mirror images of each other."[2]

Says critic Geoff Klock: "Both Batman and the Joker are creations of a random and tragic "one bad day." Batman spends his life forging meaning from the random tragedy, whereas the Joker reflects the absurdity of "life, and all its random injustice."[3]

The Joker's underlying motive is to illustrate the inherent insanity of Batman's mission: dressing up as a bat to fight criminals ("You had a bad day once, am I right?... Why else would you dress up like a flying rat?"). It is only when Batman renders the Joker helpless and his extended assistance is rejected that the Dark Knight comes to appreciate the madman's aim, reacting just as the Joker would: laughing hysterically.

The Joker also serves as an unreliable narrator. He admits to his own uncertainty as he has disparate memories of the single event ("Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another...If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!"), accentuating the comic's depiction of "a world unraveling toward relentless urban violence and moral nihilism...."[4]

[edit] Critical reception and legacy

Although The Killing Joke was a one-shot, it had an extraordinary impact on the DC Universe. Most significant was Barbara Gordon's paralysis, which ended her career as Batgirl and eventually led to her role as Oracle in the Birds of Prey series and other DC Universe appearances. (Birds of Prey was also adapted into a TV series of the same title which incorporated Killing Joke elements into its continuity.)

Hilary Goldstein of IGN Comics praised The Killing Joke, calling it "easily the greatest Joker story ever told", adding that "Moore's rhythmic dialogue and Bolland's organic art create a unique story often mimicked but never matched."[5] IGN declared The Killing Joke the third greatest Batman graphic novel, after Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One.[6]

James Donnelly of Pop Syndicate called The Killing Joke "one of the greatest comics of the 20th century, period."[7] Aaron Albert of said that "Moore's writing [is] spot on" and praised Bolland's artwork, calling it "realistic and downright creepy in a few sections."[8] Van Jensen of ComicMix said, "Each time [I read The Killing Joke] I'm amazed all over again at how Alan Moore and Brian Bolland teamed to pack such intensity, ferocity and humanity into those pages.[9] B.L. Wooldridge of Batman in Comics called the graphic novel "an incredible story, with Moore at his best and awe-inspiring art by painter Brian Bolland."[10]

Andy Shaw of Grovel had a more lukewarm response to The Killing Joke, saying that while it's "wonderfully executed", it "suffer[s] from its reliance on the rules of the superhero story."[11] Seb Patrick of Den of Geek also had a mixed response, calling The Killing Joke "one of the most revered and influential Batman stories ever written and arguably the definitive Joker story", but added that it's "not at the level of [Alan Moore's] true masterpieces [such as] Watchmen, V for Vendetta, [and] The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen."[12]

Despite its popularity, Moore himself would later find much fault with his story, calling it "clumsy, misjudged, and [devoid of] real human importance." Moore, trying to present far more relatable, human characters, found that Batman and the Joker were just presented as characters[13] and said, "I don't think [The Killing Joke]'s a very good book. It's not saying anything very interesting."[14]

In his introduction to the story in the DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore trade paperback, Brian Bolland disputes the widely held belief that the story was originally a Batman annual story and ended up a prestige-format book. Bolland recalls that the idea for a one-off Batman story focusing on the Joker—with Batman more of an incidental character—was his. Bolland says that in 1984, DC editor Dick Giordano told him he could do any project for DC he wanted, and Bolland requested to do a Batman/Joker prestige book with Moore as writer. Bolland has also expressed dissatisfaction with the final book, and regrets that its impending schedule for release meant he couldn't color the book himself (John Higgins was the colorist). Bolland says that "the end result wasn't quite what I'd hoped. I don't think it rates with some of the highlights of Alan's career."[15] March 2008 saw the release of the artwork as Bolland intended it: the twentieth-anniversary hardcover edition of The Killing Joke is completely recolored by Bolland himself.

[edit] Influence in other media

Tim Burton claimed that The Killing Joke was a major influence on his film adaptation of Batman: "I was never a giant comic book fan, but I've always loved the image of Batman and The Joker. The reason I've never been a comic book fan - and I think it started when I was a child - is because I could never tell which box I was supposed to read. I don't know if it was dyslexia or whatever, but that's why I loved The Killing Joke, because for the first time I could tell which one to read. It's my favorite. It's the first comic I've ever loved. And the success of those graphic novels made our ideas more acceptable."[16]

Director Christopher Nolan has mentioned that The Killing Joke served as an influence for the version of the Joker that appeared in The Dark Knight. Heath Ledger, who played the Joker, stated in an interview that he was given a copy of The Killing Joke as reference for the role.[17]

[edit] Influence on the Joker's origin

This was not the first time the Joker was given an actual origin. Moore's rendition uses elements of the 1951 story "The Mystery of the Red Hood" (Detective Comics #168), which established the concept of the Joker originally having been a thief known only as the Red Hood, and whose real name was unknown. The tragic and human elements of the character's story, coupled with his barbaric crimes as the Joker, portray the character as more of a three-dimensional (if irredeemable) human being. Quoting Mark Voger: The Killing Joke "provid[ed] the Joker with a sympathetic back story as it presented some of the villain's most vile offenses."[18]

Much of the Joker's story from The Killing Joke is also confirmed in 2004's "Pushback" (Batman: Gotham Knights #50-55; reprinted with #66 as Batman: Hush Returns [ISBN 1401209009]), where the events are observed and reported by an impartial third party: Edward Nigma, better known as The Riddler. Nigma recounts that the Joker's pregnant wife was kidnapped and murdered by the criminals in order to force his compliance. In this version, the pre-accident Joker is called "Jack". In The Killing Joke, he is not given a name.

[edit] Deluxe edition

In March 2008, a deluxe hardcover version of the book was released, featuring recoloring of the book by Brian Bolland. The new colors featured black and white flashbacks, as opposed to Higgins's colors, along with one or two items per panel colored in pink or red, up until the helmet of the Red Hood is revealed. In addition to recoloring the pages, Bolland also altered some facial expressions and added minor artwork.[1] Also included is a colored version of Bolland's "An Innocent Guy" (originally published in Batman: Black & White), an introduction by Tim Sale, and an epilogue by Bolland.

Critical reaction to the new coloring has been mostly positive. Aaron Albert of said that "the washed-out tones of the flashback sections help to make the transitions between the sections more fluid" and that "the first reveal of the Joker after his transformation has more impact."[8] Van Jensen of ComicMix said that "the new colors really do improve the book, giving it a subtlety and grimness not present in the original."[9]

James Donnelly of Pop Syndicate said that the original version "is outdone by Bolland’s recoloring", which he said "gives the comic a more timeless quality."[7] Seb Patrick of Den of Geek had a lukewarm reaction, calling the recoloring of the flashbacks "superb" but commented that "some of the [other] changes seem to have less of a point—increasing definition for the sake of it, but giving the book too much of a present-day feel rather than looking like it was printed in the 1980s."[12]

A comparison of the original coloring and the deluxe hardcover edition coloring can be found here.

The deluxe edition also makes a change to the front cover: where the original edition's speech bubble had the Joker saying "SMILE", with no punctuation, the newer cover adds an exclamation point: "SMILE!"

[edit] References

  1. ^ a b Batman: The Killing Joke, deluxe ed. (New York: DC Comics, 2008).
  2. ^ Alan Moore, "Alan Moore Interview", interview with Brad Stone, Comic Book Resources October 22, 2001. Retrieved on June 28, 2008.
  3. ^ Geoff Kluck, How to Read Superhero Comics and Why (New York: Continuum, 2002) 52-53. ISBN 0826414192.
  4. ^ David Leverenz, "The Last Real Man in America: From Natty Bumppo to Batman", The "American Literary History" Reader, ed. Gordon Hutner (New York: Oxford UP, 1995) 276. ISBN 0195095049.
  5. ^ Batman: The Killing Joke Review, IGN, May 24, 2005
  6. ^ The 25 Greatest Batman Graphic Novels, IGN, June 13, 2005
  7. ^ a b Batman: The Killing Joke Deluxe 20th Anniversary Edition, James Donnelly, Pop Syndicate, March 21, 2008
  8. ^ a b Batman: The Killing Joke Deluxe Edition Review, Aaron Albert,
  9. ^ a b Review: Batman: The Killing Joke Deluxe Edition, Van Jensen, ComicMix, March 29, 2008
  10. ^ A Review of "THE KILLING JOKE", Batman in Comics
  11. ^ Batman: The Killing Joke review, Grovel
  12. ^ a b Title, Seb Patrick, Den of Geek, 28 April 2008
  13. ^ George Khoury, ed., The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore (Raleigh: TwoMorrows, 2003) 123. ISBN 1893905241.
  14. ^ Alan Moore interview,
  15. ^ Brian Bolland, "On Batman: Brian Bolland Recalls The Killing Joke," DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore (New York: DC Comics, 2006) 256. ISBN 1401209270.
  16. ^ Tim Burton, Burton on Burton, revised ed. (London: Faber and Faber, 2006) 71. ISBN 0571229263.
  17. ^ Daniel Robert Epstein (2006-11-07). "Heath Ledger Talks Joker". Newsarama. Retrieved on 2006-11-08. 
  18. ^ Mark Voger, The Dark Age: Grim, Great and Gimmicky Post-Modern Comics (Raleigh: TwoMorrows, 2006) 33. ISBN 1893905535.

[edit] External links

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